There is no need for workers to dismantle Singapore’s current labour system, as the symbiotic alliance between the People’s Action Party (PAP) government and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) has always been founded on a common desire to improve and secure the the well-being and future of workers in Singapore, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
The partnership between PAP and NTUC, he said, can be traced back to the early 1950s when the late Lee Kuan Yew fought for better working conditions on behalf of the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union as a young lawyer, prior to becoming Singapore’s first prime minister.
“In Singapore, you may not know, but when people say industrial action, they really mean industrial ‘inaction’ — that means nothing is happening, but it shows that you are angry, and there was a lot to be angry about in the 1950s,” Lee said.
Speaking to over a thousand union leaders at the annual NTUC National Delegates Conference at the Orchid Country Club on Tue (15 Oct), Lee, who is also the PAP’s secretary-general, said that at present, NTUC continues to “rethink its role” in staying relevant to workers.
“We are once again sailing into uncharted waters. The world is filled with uncertainties. Our economy is entering a new phase. Technology is transforming many industries. Emerging businesses are disrupting established players. Our workers have to be ready for change. We have to talk about it, we have to understand it, and we have to say we are ready to face it,” he said.
“We will always stand with workers and ensure your well-being. We will always do our best to help you and your children progress with Singapore and have a better life, and we will ensure that no Singaporean, regardless of background or circumstances, will ever be shut out from opportunities or be left behind,” Lee assured.
Highlighting that many of the current PAP Members of Parliament have a stake in the Singapore labour movement — and even NTUC secretary-general Ng Chee Meng being a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office — Lee added that workers “have influence and interests within the system”.
“You do not have to go outside it, work around it, or worse, try to pull it down and replace it. This is your system. Make it succeed and take pride in it. The PAP is working with you, for you, for Singapore,” he said.
Tight-knit alliance between PAP and NTUC “better” than having a populist government pandering to “short-term passions at the expense of our future”: PM Lee
Touching on the rise of populism elsewhere such as the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong, Lee said that “the masses” in such places are “angry” that “the elites” or leaders “seem disconnected” and as though they are “only looking after themselves”.
“And worse, the people feel that they have been looked down upon, and the social compact, that trust and mutual reliance, has been fractured,” he said.
However, he questioned if tearing down the system out of anger and “because it is no longer working for them” will serve as a sound solution to the issues arising from said fractured relationship with the government.
“What comes after that, they don’t know. Will it be better? No idea,” he said.
While the people of Hong Kong are “not optimistic about their future, no matter how hard they study or work”, due to apprehensions surrounding unaddressed serious economic and social concerns such as in housing, Lee said people in Singapore are able to build affordable homes, and benefit from high-quality infrastructure, education and healthcare.
“Most of all, the PAP government creates jobs and opportunities for workers, to enable every citizen to improve their lives through their own efforts with confidence and pride.
“This is far better than having a populist government that gives vent to the frustrations of the population, or panders to short-term passions at the expense of our future,” he added.
Nonetheless, Singapore should take heed of what is happening in Hong Kong and think about whether such a situation could also take place here, given Singapore’s vulnerability as a small nation, said Lee.
“We are exposed to the world, we are globalised more than them, we are vulnerable because we are smaller than them,” he added.
Lee warned that the consequences are dire if Singapore fails to resist such forces well.
“It will become impossible to govern Singapore, to make and carry out difficult decisions or to plan for the long-term good of the nation,” he added.